150 years ago this week, the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor spent some time in a Richmond prison.
We’ve spent a lot of time here talking about Richmond’s infamous prisons and some of their “guests” over the years. Of all the stories of notable people who passed through Richmond’s prison system during the war, the story of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is one of the most interesting. One of the early pioneers of the women’s rights movement, Walker created quite a stir when she arrived in the city and was sent to Castle Thunder. Oddly enough, it was because of what she was wearing:
FEMALE YANKEE SURGEON. – The female Yankee surgeon recently captured in front of Gen. Johnston’s lines was received in this city yesterday. She is about thirty years old and quite ugly, but has an intelligent appearance and a pleasant voice. She was dressed in male costume – black pants, fitting tight, a jacket and short talma of black or dark blue cloth, but wore a dark straw Gipsy hat, that might be construed as announcing her sex. She gave her name as Dr. Mary E. Walker, of the Union army, and said she was a regular alopathic physician. She said also that she had been improperly taken prisoner, as at the time of her capture she was on neutral ground. As she passed through the streets in charge of a detective, her unique appearance attracted unusual attention, and an immense crowd of negroes and idlers formed for her a volunteer escort to Castle Thunder. Richmond Whig, 4/22/1864
In the 1860s, the idea of a woman dressed in men’s clothing was about as shocking as a woman claiming herself to be a Yankee surgeon–and the Richmond press ridiculed her for both. The world just wasn’t ready for Walker, who in my humble opinion, was a total badass.
Walker was born in 1832 in upstate New York to abolitionist parents who encouraged her to pursue an education and raised her to believe that women were equals to men. She graduated from a medical college (where she was the only woman in her class) and began a private practice in New York.
Throughout her life, Walker was a proponent of women’s “dress reform.” She believed that the large hoop dresses and other restrictive clothing that women were expected to wear held them back from living a more meaningful life. In addition to proudly wearing trousers and other men’s clothing, Walker also involved herself in women’s suffrage and other women’s rights issues.
When the Civil War broke out, Walker headed to Washington D.C. to enlist as a surgeon. When she was denied a commission as a medical officer due to her gender, she volunteered instead as a nurse. After serving in a volunteer capacity for two years, she was finally appointed as an assistant surgeon to the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. She wore a modified officer’s uniform with a pistol on each hip during her service. She served on the front lines, treating soldiers on both sides, sometimes using her role as a surgeon to collect information about the enemy.
After crossing enemy lines to treat patients, Walker was captured and brought to Richmond. She served four months in Castle Thunder prison until she was released in a prisoner exchange (“man for man” as she would later say when describing the ordeal) with Confederate soldiers. Upon her release, she continued her service until the end of the war. After the war, she was recognized for her service by President Andrew Johnson, who awarded her the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In 1917, just two years before her death, the rules for earning a Medal of Honor were changed to only allow for recipients who were actively engaged in combat with the enemy. The government revoked her status, but she refused to give up the medal, wearing it proudly for the remainder of her life. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal status posthumously and she stands to this day as the only woman to achieve the honor.